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Workplace Bullying and Harassment

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There is no place for bullying in the workplace

You have a right to work in a safe environment that is free from bullying, harassment, unlawful discrimination and occupational violence. Workplace bullying can impact people’s health, their work performance and the enjoyment of their job. If you or someone you know is being harassed or bullied at work, there are a number of steps you can take.

Most workplaces have policies and procedures for dealing with such matters, and designated representatives you can speak to confidentially and impartially to help you make informed decisions about how to resolve your complaint. In addition, there are a number of government support agencies you can call on for advice.

The first step is to determine whether the behaviour you are experiencing is bullying or perhaps just management of work performance. Reasonable management action can be upsetting for some people, but if it’s carried out fairly, it is not bullying. So let’s consider what is and isn’t classified as workplace bullying.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying involves the repetitive, prolonged abuse of power directed at one or more workers that could or does result in humiliation, offence, intimidation and distress. Bullying can take many forms, such as publicly humiliating someone, verbal abuse, cyber-bullying, sexual harassment or spreading malicious rumours. In assessing whether behaviour is unreasonable, you should consider if an impartial person observing the situation would think it’s reasonable or acceptable to behave that way.

Bullying in the workplace can be directed downwards from managers to workers, between co-workers or even upwards from workers to managers.

Workplace bullying can create a toxic work environment and have a detrimental effect on your health and wellbeing and on others.

This may include:

  • Severe psychological distress, sleep disturbances and anxiety
  • General ill-health such as stomach-aches and headaches
  • Incapacity to work, reduced output and performance
  • Loss of self-confidence, self-esteem and sometimes even suicidal behaviour.

In some circumstances if you have suffered injuries or illnesses that arise out of, or in the course of, your employment because of workplace bullying you may be entitled to a range of benefits and compensation under a workers compensation scheme called WorkCover. We’ll address this in a moment.  But first let’s look at what isn’t classified as workplace bullying.

What is not workplace bullying?

At some stage in your working life you may be faced with unpleasant behaviour at work that you don’t like or may cause you distress, but in the majority of cases these are not examples of bullying in the workplace.

Here are some common situations that can be confused with bullying:

  • Conflict at work: Occasional differences of opinion between people at work are inevitable and a normal part of working life. Non-aggressive conflicts and problems in working relations can leave you feeling upset but they should not be confused with workplace bullying.
  • Reasonable management action: A manager has the right to exercise his or her legitimate authority to direct and control how work is done. This may involve managing under performance or inappropriate behaviour, as well as setting performance goals and deadlines for staff.
  • Isolated acts: If you are subject to a single incident of unreasonable behaviour, it’s unlikely to be classified bullying. Addressing the behaviour before it is repeated is the best way to manage the situation; conflict in the workplace can progress to bullying if left unchecked.

Steps you can take

If you or someone you know is faced with what you suspect is workplace harassment, bullying or other forms of unacceptable behaviour, there are a number of actions you can take.

  1. Request that the behaviour stop: If you can, firmly and politely tell the person that their behaviour is unreasonable and ask them to stop. They may not realise their behaviour is unreasonable or the effect their behaviour is having on you, so they need to be given the opportunity to change. You could ask your supervisor, health and safety representative or union representative to be with you when you approach the person.
  2. Speak to someone you trust: Seek advice from someone you trust at your workplace such as a colleague, supervisor, union representative or human resources officer.
  3. Raise it with your health and safety representative (HSR): Your HSR can provide you with advice and support for your situation and represent your views to management.
  4. Check your workplace policy: Ask your employer about the policy and procedures they have in place that outlines the standards of acceptable behaviour at work and how to raise and resolve bullying issues.
  5. Report it: Formally report the situation in accordance with your organisation’s agreed bullying procedures.
  6. Keep records: Keep a factual record of events that includes what happened, dates and times, who was involved, names of witnesses and, where possible, copies of any documents.

The right advice can help you through it

If you are not satisfied that the policies and procedures of your workplace can resolve your complaint, you may wish to seek advice from an external government support organisation. Who you should contact will depend on the nature of your complaint.

  • Your rights at work: If your complaint relates to being discriminated against or threatened, or any disputes about working conditions such as pay, leave entitlements or hours of work, you can contact the Fair Work Ombudsman.
  • Termination or unfair dismissal: If your complaint is about unlawful termination or unfair dismissal from your job, you may be entitled to an unfair dismissal claim.
  • Discrimination: If you’re seeking advice about discrimination on the basis of personal characteristics, sexual harassment or racial or religious vilification, contact the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission or the Australian Human Rights Commission.

When to seek legal advice?

Depending on your situation it may be appropriate to seek legal advice from a lawyer with expertise in workers compensation.

If you have suffered psychological or physical harm as a result of workplace harassment and bullying in the workplace that has required you to undergo treatment or forced you to cease work, you should lodge a WorkCover claim as soon as possible.

WorkCover is a workers compensation scheme that is funded through the premiums paid by employers and covers a broad range of injuries, both physical and psychological. 

If your WorkCover claim is accepted, then you may be entitled to receive weekly payments for your time off work, payment of your medical and like expenses, and in limited cases a lump sum compensation for permanent impairment.

The WorkCover scheme is complex and in some cases it is necessary to seek advice from a lawyer who specialises in this area of law. 

At Slater and Gordon, our experienced team of workers compensation lawyers have a proud record over many years of achieving the best possible compensation outcomes on behalf of workers and their families.

If your WorkCover claim has been rejected or you have been off work for an extended period as a result of a psychological injury caused by bullying, please call us or submit an online enquiry. This may involve arranging a confidential meeting with a Slater and Gordon lawyer to discuss your matter in greater detail.

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